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Life Was Not a Peach

David Chang’s new memoir grapples with the white-hot fury that defined most of his career. But as an employee on the receiving end of that rage, the book fails to account for trauma he caused me. 

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David Chang changed the way America eats. In 2004, Momofuku Noodle Bar, a ramen joint in NYC’s East Village, ushered in a style of restaurant that’s now recognizable everywhere: food that emphasized “what cooks really wanted to eat” with little regard for existing conventions; unabashed loudness; and a maniacal attention to detail and deliciousness, perhaps best encapsulated in its signature dish, a pork-belly bun that would be imitated across the country.

Along with Momofuku’s rise has come Chang’s own. He’s now attached to some 15 restaurants spanning NYC to Toronto to Sydney (not counting his growing Fuku fried chicken enterprise), is the figurehead of a media and entertainment company, and, thanks in part to well-reviewed shows on PBS and Netflix, has become a recognizable public figure, even among those who have never eaten his food. After 15 years spent in the public eye, Chang has transcended his place in the so-called “bad boy” chef generation, and is now a leader in the restaurant industry. “He is probably the modern equivalent of Norman Mailer or Muhammad Ali in the 1960s and ’70s,” the New York Times’s Pete Wells wrote in 2018, “somebody whose success in one part of the culture allows him to sound off on the rest of the culture and where it is heading.”

For those who’ve closely followed Chang’s arc, it’s impossible to divorce the chef and restaurateur’s ascent from the image that helped propel him there — angry, effusive, self-aware, self-righteous, and disarmingly candid — an avatar embraced by the media, but largely created by Chang himself. As the canny narrator of his own story, he has often declared that he is mystified by his own success, as in a 2014 interview with CBC/Radio-Canada, when he described himself as “so in the moment, and unaware, and unprepared for any success, and I just didn’t care what anyone thought.”

Part of Chang’s savvy has been the mindful integration of his flaws in public; he has catalogued them throughout his career, so that the man and the myth are nearly inseparable. The latest entry in this ongoing project of self-narrativization is his memoir Eat a Peach, which was released in September. The book, co-written with food writer (and Eater contributor) Gabe Ulla, focuses on Chang’s years building Momofuku, 2004 to roughly 2017, although it briefly explores his formative years, from his “certifiably average” childhood in Virginia to his time in culinary school and as an inexperienced young cook at NYC institutions Craft and Café Boulud.

I am definitely not the intended audience for Eat a Peach: In 2008, I was hired as the corporate beverage director for Chang’s young empire; I held this job for seven months before I was fired without explanation. At the time, there were just three restaurants, all within a stone’s throw of each other, and there had never before been an official sommelier or beverage director at Momofuku.

A few months ago, I began an essay about my experience working at Momofuku. Peter Meehan, food editor of the Los Angeles Times and onetime Chang co-conspirator, had recently stepped down from his position following allegations of toxicity and “explosive anger” directed at his employees. I wanted to know, in part, why Chang hadn’t been held similarly accountable for his own behavior during the late 2000s — the wall-punching, desk breaking, violent threats, and screaming he’s been open about for years — when the peers who had surrounded him were dropping like flies as their misdeeds came to light.

Though my Momofuku career was short-lived, its impact on my life and career was not: For much of the 12 years that followed, I wondered whether being chewed up and spit out was the fault of the industry or the result of my own ineptitude. And now I’m fresh off of some 290 pages of Chang’s innermost thoughts, mea culpas, and sanguine reflections of restaurant life, all of which have reminded me why I began this inquiry in the first place. The David Chang I visited in this memoir is familiar, though the story he tells, viewed from the perspective of someone who lived on the other side of it, feels distorted: Important characters have been stricken from the page, while his own tale has been edited into an ultimately redemptive one — an inward-looking, relentlessly self-flagellating apology performed in public, when the people he hurt deserve one most of all.

Eat a Peach is divided into two sections. The first chronicles Chang’s rise to fame in largely chronological order, while the second section, as he defines it, abandons “the chronological telling of this story to explore subjects I’ve yet to fully process with [his therapist]: mania; some armchair philosophizing and shameless artistic comparisons; the limits of anger; racist chicken; the joy of pushing the boulder back up the hill.”

Chang often switches back and forth in time throughout the book, discussing events that are germane to whatever topic he happens to be addressing (section titles include “On Being Addicted to Work,” “The Magazine Business,” and “Fast Food and Asian Villains”). Vignettes are woven into chapters as footholds, from the time Chang publicly swore at an industry leader who’d given him a “degrading lecture” in the early days of Noodle Bar to trips to overseas festivals once de rigueur in the industry — the Cook It Raw and Omnivores of the mid-2010s.

Like any memoir, Eat a Peach is an exercise in self-reflexivity. But it’s also remarkably transparent about how it operates and what it intends to do. Primarily, it wants to reframe Chang’s self-righteous anger, to bundle it up with his guilt, regrets, and ruminations, and to sell it back to the public as his pardon. He’s older and wiser, he wants us to know — a cliché, but he really means it. This is, of course, classic Chang: to lean into the obvious, to embrace it, and, in the process, to render the accompanying criticism pointless, whether it’s his well-documented love of Bud Light or his passionate embrace of Domino’s pizza. “Even this book, written with the benefit of greater knowledge and better perspective, is still riddled with problems,” he writes. “I’ve talked a great deal about the importance of failure as a learning tool, but it’s really a privilege to expect people to let us fail over and over again.”

And Chang does fail again and again, as he recounts in the book, especially when it comes to his anger. His memoir both acknowledges these failures and attempts to move past them, because absolution feels like the true goal here. “I hate that the anger has become my calling card,” Chang writes. “With friends, family, my co-workers, and the media, my name has become synonymous with rage.” Chang, always seeking to be in control, wants to reassert it over his own mythos, and to that end, he largely succeeds in Eat a Peach — as he always has in telling (and selling) his own story.

After all, the myth of Momofuku did not create itself. It took work. To fuel his high standards of creativity and perfection, Chang needed — and created — a combustible environment at Momofuku, aided by internal and external forces. “Conflict was fuel, and Momofuku was a gas-guzzling SUV,” Chang writes. His pursuit of that conflict was often valorized by the media. A few weeks after I began working at Momofuku, Larissa MacFarquhar’s March 2008 profile in the New Yorker, “On the Edge,” dropped. That profile painted a robust picture of an angry chef who had trouble controlling his emotions: In response to a series of mistakes, none “egregious” in themselves, MacFarquhar writes that Chang had “screamed and yelled until a friend showed up and dragged him out of the restaurant, and his head still hurt nearly twenty-four hours later.”

The anger was always framed as a means to an end, part of Chang’s quest to create “the perfect restaurant.” This need for perfection is a deep throughline in the Chang mythology; a child golf prodigy, he won the Virginia state championship two years in a row. When his peers began to catch up as he grew older, he recounts his father sitting him down to “analyze each mistake I’d made.” Chang has embraced this part of his biography, as well as the emotion that arrives when his peers don’t possess his relentless drive, or when he recognizes that his own high standards are, in fact, unreachable: rage.

Eat a Peach is strewn with references to how this anger manifested within Chang’s body, always simmering just beneath the surface. “When I’m angry, I seethe with such intensity that it can’t simply be emotional,” he writes. “It’s like I’m an animal registering danger.” Elsewhere, he writes that “the only thing that could snap me out of my fits was punching a wall or a steel countertop, anything to cause me some kind of physical pain.” There are the headaches that follow each outburst, the “constant thrum of depression in the back of my skull.”

There are moments when Chang appears to understand the weight of his anger and his indulgence of it. In one section, he describes reading an eGullet review written just a month after Noodle Bar’s opening, in which a diner recounted witnessing Chang’s takedown of an employee during dinner. The diner describes the scene as a “public humiliation,” noting that Chang “brought his cook to the verge of tears, told him he was going to be fired” in full view of guests. “We left feeling a bit traumatized,” the reviewer said of his experience. Chang writes that he doesn’t remember the specific incident, but concedes that, apart from a few details, the account is “accurate and could have been written about almost any night I was working service.”

But acknowledging a problem doesn’t necessarily begin to fix it. It is possible to be both broader in one’s perspective and still complicit in its lack of resolution. It’s notable that Chang’s acknowledgement of this incident, complete with the benefit of hindsight, is presented to the reader as a lesson about how his anger affected the restaurant’s guests. “Recently, I’ve started to see this particular incident for the lesson it was,” Chang writes. “I was contradicting my own belief that the only thing that matters is how the diners feel when they walk out the door. Because we were in such tight quarters, when you came to Momofuku, you were eating dinner with me. And nobody wants to eat dinner with a dick.”

What this anecdote shows is that, while Chang believes that he has learned from his errors, he appears to have missed the full lesson: He was abusive — at the time, unapologetically so — to his staff. I had worked in kitchens for a long time, and I knew chefs, so even MacFarquhar’s startling portrait of a chef so emotionally volatile that he gave himself shingles felt in line with the overall climate of restaurant work. Yet I was surprised by Dave. In all my years of restaurant work, I had never seen anything like the roiling, red-faced, screaming, pulsing, wrath-filled man that was David Chang.

Despite the formative role that Chang’s rage plays in both his personality and the memoir, as someone who witnessed it, its scope and its effects on the people around him never feel adequately described, partly because he favors hazy generalities over specifics, and partly because he claims to suffer from memory lapses in and around the maelstrom of his anger. “The slightest error or show of carelessness from a cook could turn me into a convulsing, raging mass,” he writes, cutting the recipient of the abuse out of the description. At another point in the book, when relaying an outburst he had in Copenhagen, Chang describes the moments that led up to it, and the precipitous aftermath, but not the incident itself, nor whom it affected.

The recipients of Dave’s anger — his employees — lack the same power to forget, or to leave the consideration of its impact to others. I vividly remember the day that a line cook, who could not have been more than 22, was brought to tears by Dave’s rage for cooking what was deemed a subpar family meal: “I will scalp you,” Dave screamed. “I will murder your fucking family!”

I recall, too, in sharp relief, the afternoon service meeting in which I was excoriated in front of my staff for purchasing a sparkling moscato to pair with one of the courses at Ko, even though Dave had himself told me that I had carte blanche to serve whatever I wanted with his food, since I, a certified sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers, was the expert. “Who the fuck told you that you could buy this?” he screamed. “Who the fuck do you think you are?”

Reached by my editors, Dave provided the following comment about those two incidents: “While I do not recall these specific instances, they are entirely consistent with my behavior at the time, which I did not begin to correct until several years later,” he said. “The bottom line is that I’m sorry. I’m still working to get better and repair many personal and professional relationships, but I also respect that the path to forgiveness does not exist on my terms. No one but me deserves to carry the burden of my past failings.”

That apology, while noted and accepted 12 years later, cannot change the fallout of that moment. Dave didn’t really care about the moscato; he cared, it seemed, more about cutting me down in front of the staff I managed, so that they no longer saw me as their boss but, instead, as a small, easily flustered, puffy-with-tears young woman. He succeeded. From then on, it was virtually impossible to command respect from my staff. They had seen me as Dave saw me, as someone unworthy of respect. And that was enough.

A memoir is necessarily a work of hindsight, but even for a memoir, Eat a Peach is extremely self-referential. In the book’s preface, ever getting ahead of criticism, Chang sets the reader up for his role as an imperfect narrator: “I won’t pretend I can recount everything exactly as it happened,” he writes. “I’m sure I’ve also contradicted statements I’ve made in the past, whether it’s because I’ve changed my mind or I was playing fast and loose with the facts before or I’m misremembering them now.”

What Chang does effectively with this maneuver is reveal every storyteller’s role as an editor. Often, he points out what hindsight offers in the retelling of a story. And in some vignettes, when Chang recounts actions and events he’s now not proud of, he deems them worth “correcting” — but instead of addressing those he has harmed outright, he fervidly professes his guilt, then opts to write over them. It’s better living through editing.

This is the entire conceit of a chapter simply entitled “Thirty-Five”: It’s printed in the book’s normal black typeface, with “crossed out” sections “written over” in a red typeset, a trick that makes obvious the work of self-editing. “[I]t’s revisionist history if I change [what I was truly thinking at the time],” Chang writes at the beginning of the section. “All I want to do is edit this period of my life not just for you, but for myself. I wish I could have seen and experienced it all differently. I wish I could am going to rewrite this whole chapter.” The “wish I could” is replaced with “am going to” in red.

Using this storytelling device, Chang pulls back the curtain, revealing some examples of what we now acknowledge were long-standing foundations of abuse in restaurant kitchens. He recalls criticizing and swearing at multiple job candidates who sought a work-life balance: “I convinced myself that basic human needs were selfish. … I had conflated my own selfishness with selflessness. I was miserable to work for,” he writes in the edited red text. With the exception of one struck-through “fuck that guy,” the edit ultimately glosses over exactly how those candidates were dismissed. It projects a better outcome (the edited one) while using his own shame to skip over any direct reckoning of his effect on other people.

Editing happens in less obvious but more egregious ways, as well. One night in Sydney, Australia, as Chang writes in “Thirty-Five,” he threatened a hotel employee — essentially a colleague — with a knife. “My staff tells me I screamed at the man. Threatened him. They said I had been slicing something on a cutting board and was now gesticulating wildly with the knife. They said it could be interpreted as a weapon.” This moment, written in the “edited” red-text format, enjoys one paragraph in Eat a Peach, a spare handful of sentences dedicated to what is almost certainly a crime. (Chang notes, in the lived-in clarity of black text, that “the ensuing report to HR nearly got me deported from Australia.”) Chang claims, and so the reader experiences, an absence of memory.

Elsewhere in the book, Chang displays his ability to recall — or, at least, to fact-check — miniscule details about the past. There are nearly 100 words dedicated to poularde en vessie, an obscure French dish that Chang learned to make at Café Boulud, in which a whole chicken is stuffed with truffles and foie gras and then placed inside of a pig’s bladder. In another place, a description of tuna carpaccio takes up 339 words. And Chang shows off his persistent dedication to detail by including lengthy end-of-night manager log emails from Momofuku, which cover everything from new dishes to staff recalculations to mechanical issues in the kitchen.

The knife-wielding, earth-shattering incident, however, takes up no space whatsoever in Chang’s brain. He claims to have blacked out, his anger so hot a flame it melted his memory. But he could’ve made the same effort to recount the incident and reckon with its impact in the book that he did to unearth all those lavish descriptions of onetime dishes. (As a point of comparison, the late New York Times journalist David Carr’s 2009 memoir, The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life, is a model of excellence when it comes to self-reporting, employing standard journalism methods to get to the soul of murky personal truth.) Instead, as an editor, Chang decided that these details could not be rehashed by him after the fact — that his side of the story was all that he could tell. But in his capacity as “truth-teller,” which is partly what he’s attempting to project here, Chang has an obligation to dive deeper into these liminal spaces, particularly if he’s serious about contending with the abuses of his past and their consequences.

One thing in particular that I needed to know was how Chang’s memoir would handle Andrew “Drew” Salmon, who was the behind-the-scenes partner in all things Momofuku for more than a decade (and who went on to become an advisor to Christina Tosi after parting ways with the company in 2017). When I began at Momofuku, he was Chang’s business partner and the company’s chief operating officer. As the head of the restaurant group’s managerial operations, he was my boss. Early into my brand-new job, I was called into a meeting with him. Ostensibly, it was to discuss my schedule, but the only thing I remember, 12 years later, is the question he asked in that cramped cellar room.

“Are you a chef-fucker?”

“A what?”

“A chef-fucker. The kind of person who goes around trying to fuck famous chefs.”

I was not, but I suppose that was what he had heard about me. I was young, I had come from other restaurants, and I had slept with a famous pastry chef who was friends with Dave. Word had, I suspected, gotten around, as it does in New York restaurants. Still, being presented with my private life was gutting. Salmon used this meeting to exert his power, and was, from that moment forward, a hostile manager in my eyes. (Salmon, reached by my editors, provided the following comment in regards to the allegation of this conversation: “I’m sorry, I have no recollection of the conversation that is being described. I don’t want to dismiss her feelings or take away from her story or perspective, but I don’t remember having said this.”)

In a straightforward retelling of Momofuku’s history, even one as compressed as Eat a Peach, one might expect at least a passing nod to the business partner whose presence loomed large for more than a decade. But in the 290 pages of Eat a Peach, Salmon’s name never once appears, despite the long and steady roster of other names recited. And if Salmon, whose condescension and abrasiveness as Momofuku’s No. 2 left staffers feeling demeaned and bullied, is absent from this book, I can only wonder what else is left unsaid. (Salmon provided the following comment to my editors regarding his demeanor and its effect on staff: “It was a long time ago. I predominantly worked from our office and probably didn’t fully appreciate how much talent we had in every part of our company. I’m sure I could have been more patient and empathetic in all my communications.”)

At a minimum, Chang has largely left out the problematic friendships that swirled around him during the most meteoric phase of Momofuku’s rise. Missing from the majority of the book’s narrative are the bad actors who had parties in “rape rooms” and then kicked backed at Ssäm Bar, the ones renowned for their bad behavior. He doesn’t get to that part of the story until page 225, tying it specifically to the emergence of the #MeToo movement, and by then it feels like an afterthought.

In fact, for all his supposed self-awareness, Chang does not hesitate to bathe in nostalgia when it comes to the so-called good old days — a point he acknowledges, writing “you can still sense my bro-ish excitement when I tell old war stories.” But when I think about Chang and “war stories,” I mostly remember how, when he came into a room back then, the staff held their breath, like a grenade could detonate at any moment — or the particular terror we experienced if Chang came in and the music was playing too quietly at Ssäm Bar. Then, his sonorous indignation. The rage. None of that was exciting to those of us who were in the blast radius.

Unsurprisingly, I’d push back on the much-repeated idea in Eat a Peach that, as Chang writes, “My greatest strength is in creating environments for other people to grow and succeed. I love teams.” It may be true now, but back then, the restaurant came before its workers, and, beyond that distinction, the back of house superseded the front. In 2008, Chang took what he describes as “the whole gang” to the James Beard Awards, where he ended up winning for Best Chef: New York City. I wasn’t on the “Momobus,” with its disco lights and stripper pole, for “a night the team wouldn’t soon forget,” because I wasn’t invited aboard. Someone had to work service, even though, as Chang writes, at that point, “I still didn’t understand what a sommelier really did.”

Dave was always quick to remind those of us who made up the front-of-house team of our general lack of expertise. More than once he said that he could run a restaurant without the front of house, and yet, there we were, Momofuku’s ugly stepchildren, overpaid, he told us, for skills we didn’t possess. We couldn’t cook, he told us; we were no artists. We were just “greedy bastards,” as he put it in his New Yorker profile. In the book, Chang concedes this prior wholesale lack of respect for the roles played by bussers, managers, sommeliers, and servers. “I’d always felt there was a huge imbalance in the way that servers were compensated with tips, while cooks were not,” he writes, all these years later. “It was my opinion that the kitchen made the only truly essential contribution. Wine lists and waitstaff were affectations of Western dining.”

Early in my tenure at Momofuku, I waited on then-New York Times dining reviewer Frank Bruni, who awarded our restaurant three stars. My pairing with the crab course, which I devised the day before the critic arrived, made it into the newspaper: “[Ko’s] sense of mischief is underscored by the ‘wine pairing’ for a course of soft-shell crab: a glass of chilly Budweiser, bringing to mind a day at the beach,” Bruni wrote. I poured the beer counterside (Ko had no actual tables), into a sake glass, much to his unconcealed delight. But to hear Dave tell it at the time, contribution to the newspaper’s review notwithstanding, my role was that of an overpaid appendage, a testament to his belief that only cooks can add value to restaurant life.

The managerial structure produced by that belief, devised to pit the back of house against the front of house — by tipping kitchen staff out of the collective tip pool, always a point of contention among servers, for instance — meant that the nervous system of Momofuku was permanently electrified with tension. Chang was never abashed about these underpinnings, so perhaps it’s fair to say that his employees knew what they were getting into. But there was also a push and pull between men and women: Momofuku often felt like a boys club, with more male bussers, more male kitchen staff, more male managers, and, generally speaking, more men working at the restaurant than women. While women were in administrative positions and ran much of the company, many were also swayed — or cowed — by the Chang ethos. As a result, there could be a palpable thrum of misogyny, however unintentional, cascading down through the restaurants.

This is all to say that Momofuku culture was insider culture. Either you were in or you were out; I was never “in,” so I was delivered a regular helping of mistreatment by the people — managers, people in administrative roles, and chefs who went on to become nearly as famous as Chang himself — whom Chang groomed to believe that coolness was the premium capital of the Momofuku brand. My schedule changed on a whim. Days off flip-flopped and requests were not recognized. Unpredictability and the personality clashes are common in restaurants, but I lived in a constant and dizzying state of fluctuation. That was the norm, because as Chang writes, “It didn’t matter to me what your personal needs were. Any needs were indicative of frailty and I was of the mind that there was no place for weakness in our company.”

My time at Momofuku ended in September 2008, when I was called into the main office on a fall afternoon and fired without explanation. I had never been written up for any infractions during my time working at Momofuku, nor had I, to my knowledge, broken any rules or done anything in violation of my contract (although New York is an at-will state). I began privately dating a server during my time there, but that was not a contractual issue — and, actually, other staff members higher on the ladder than I was were publicly dating subordinates at the time. My cause for termination was never made clear; I simply understood it to mean that I was being fired because I was not liked by the upper echelons of management, not because I was bad at my job.

In these past months, I have spent a lot of time talking to friends and colleagues from those days. Most remember my trauma, or can speak to their own. I was surprised at how much I unearthed, and also at how much I had forgotten, like the Roundtable emails circulated among management at the end of each night, or the needlessly respected bloggers who visited us in the early days at Ko (though I never forgot Gael Greene, who committed me to the page as a “gorgon”), or even Peter Serpico’s hand-torn pasta with snails and chicken skin, a dish I loved, but filed away with all of my own strange emotions from that time.

I ran into Dave five summers after I was fired, when I was moonlighting as a sommelier at a restaurant in the Hamptons, where I now live. Removed from Momofuku, he did not seem to remember that there had ever been anything but ease between us, and he invited me to sit down at his table for a drink. I declined. He had apparently been able to put our shared past behind him, but I couldn’t.

The problem with Chang’s apparent ability to move on was that many of us who worked for him could not, the scars we received lasting for years, if not a lifetime — a fact he seems to be starting to reckon with. “Recognizing my flaws doesn’t mean I’m ‘cured,’” he writes at one point. “I’ve done so much harm,” at another. But for all of the hand-wringing, all of the guilt, all of the acknowledgment of the bad things that he’s done or condoned, nowhere in the book does he say “I’m sorry” or apologize — the word “sorry” appears six times, never in the form of an apology — other than to “anyone whose role I’ve exaggerated or downplayed in my memory.” In the end, Chang’s trauma, and the trauma he inflicted on other people, becomes part of his public persona, while we simply carry ours.

At the time that Salmon asked me if I was a “chef-fucker,” part of me believed that I deserved to be spoken to in that way, which is why I didn’t quit. Momofuku was the biggest, most important, and best-paying job I’d ever had — I was making $100,000 a year under the most visible umbrella in the dining world — and I had convinced myself I couldn’t replace it. Beyond telling friends and family members, I stayed largely silent. As a leader, a manager, and a chef, Chang had a real and lasting impact on people’s livelihoods. He made careers: Without Chang, you may never have heard of Christina Tosi, Akira Akuto, or Peter Serpico — and that’s just the abbreviated list. He also broke careers. So like everyone else, I accepted the abuses of Momofuku for fear of being fired, of being blacklisted, of never being able to gain a foothold in the restaurant industry again.

But I remain convinced that I speak here not only for me, but also for so many other staff members who walked through the doors of Momofuku one last time, looking back and wondering if they would remember the sublime — and there were enough of those moments — or only the sour. Not everyone shares my experiences or memories, of course, but I know that I am not alone in wondering why it took so long to talk about the despotism of Momofuku. Wrapped up in rising stardom, and in the blackouts of anger, David Chang let the important business of taking care of his staff get away from him; he let us down. He let me down.

And Chang’s impact on restaurant workers goes far beyond me or Momofuku: The “norms” that he initiated over a decade ago still thrive in other restaurants, his intricately documented rage influencing a generation of young chefs. In a restaurant group where bad behavior was sometimes rewarded, that is a lesson learned. Those of us who worked for him — and who lauded him — are not absolved of our responsibility. We may have been terrified, but we should have held him accountable. Even after his rage was given prime real estate in one of the country’s most respected magazines, we gave him a pass.

I think about all of this a lot, and I also think about the fact that I was worked to the bone, drained of my love for restaurants, convinced that I was bad at my job, that I wasn’t cool, that I didn’t belong, that I wasn’t a hard worker, that I wasn’t worthy. The routine assault of my skill set deflated me so completely that, even though I came to Momofuku with an Ivy League degree, a master’s, and a sommelier certification, after my departure, I enrolled in a full-time culinary program at Chang’s alma mater, the French Culinary Institute. I graduated second in my class. He will never be able to say I can’t cook again, I told myself.

Still, even after all this, after all the anger that Dave and Momofuku planted in me, I sometimes think of him and my time there fondly. What I gained at Momofuku, perhaps most surprisingly, are deep and lasting friendships that I find immeasurably meaningful. And, in a strange and twisted way, Momofuku delivered to me my current and complete life: Ten years ago, a close friend whom I met at Momofuku (who still keeps me in her phone as “Momo Hannah”) asked me to come out to Long Island to help her open a restaurant, and, after that, I never really left. I met my husband here, bought my house here, had my babies here, and may even retire here someday.

As for Dave, he was funny, and generous, and I liked him, and I wanted him to like me, in that thirsty way that you want the people whom you feel will never truly like you to at least understand who you are. I stayed longer than I should have, chasing moments that were pleasant enough: a bag of gifted cockles during a weekend in Sag Harbor, a night drinking flaming tiki bowls at the Rusty Knot. I saw versions of Dave that were decent and kind. The world has seen that, too; on November 29, Chang became the first celebrity and 14th contestant in history to win $1 million on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, the sum of which he donated to Southern Smoke Foundation, a Houston-based crisis relief organization for people in the COVID-battered hospitality industry. He is not a monster, but what he created could devour people in monstrous ways.

Taking Chang at his word, I recognize that he sees some of the pain and torment in what he has birthed. “Restaurants saved my life, but they’ve also hurt and betrayed many of my peers,” he writes. I have no doubt that he has grown in the 12 years since I worked for him. Like me, he’s a parent now. I hope that he is kinder, that he surrounds himself with better people, that he approaches management with less of the toss-spaghetti-at-the-wall wildness than he did back then. I also know that Momofuku is different than it was during my time there: It has a human resources department, and support systems, and it may even be a wonderful place to work now. The place, I hope, like the man, has reached maturity.

Some have asked me what I, personally, would like to see as the denouement to this story. What does restitution look like to those of us harmed by Dave and what he built? Yes, it was different then, and our culture has changed, and I understand that he is working toward becoming a better person. I also believe that he owes a tithe beyond an apology. (Releasing every former employee from any nondisclosure agreement that prevents them from talking about what they experienced at Momofuku might be a start.) For all that Dave has edited in and out of this narrative, what he cannot change is the trauma left in his wake. The one thing he can offer up that is commensurate with the scope and scale of the grief he has caused is the space he occupies in restaurants and in culture: He can cede it to someone who will use it to change this toxic industry that has broken so many of us.

The book’s parting image leaves the reader with a fruit-laden Chang, peaches and nectarines, acquired from the farmers market, firmly in hand. “What are you going to do with all that fruit?” his wife, Grace, asks in the final line of the book. He does not answer. I suspect that he does not yet know what the fruit of his labor should become.

Hannah Selinger’s IACP award-nominated work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Cut, Wine Enthusiast, and elsewhere.
Dola Sun is a freelance illustrator.

Disclosure: David Chang is producing shows for Hulu in partnership with Vox Media Studios, part of Eater’s parent company, Vox Media. No Eater staff member is involved in the production of those shows, and this does not impact coverage on Eater.


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